Comedian Mark Thomas tells Laura Davis why he decided to write a show on his dad’s passion for opera
HE WAS an unlikely exponent of Rossini – a hard-grafting builder, who would stand on a rooftop bellowing “Largo al factotum della città” along to a cassette recorder.
It was a passion for self-education that drew Colin Thomas to opera and once he had listened to The Barber of Seville there was no going back.
At the time, this was all to the great embarrassment of his son, the comedian Mark Thomas, who would cringe when his dad struck up a tune on a building site.
Before he became known for political comedy, Thomas would help his father at work – “If there was something particularly odious to do, that would be my task.”
He didn’t get paid to listen to the builder’s renditions of the Italian classics but he had to put up with them – both there and in their South London home, where Sundays were days “when your ears lived in fear” because of opera recordings belting out at full volume.
As a result, Thomas learned to despise all arias alike so it is almost absurd to him, decades later, to have created a mini-production with the Royal Opera House and now be touring a one-man show all about the experience , which calls into the Liverpool Playhouse later this month.
“We had a very problematic relationship,” he says of his father.
“He was of a generation when men went out and worked and no-one was going to look after you so you got out there and looked after yourself.
“He was not the most skilled negotiator in the world. He cast a shadow over the house and I think it was the same for a lot of people of that generation, the idea of what a man’s role was.”
Their relationship became even more complex when, 10 years ago, his father was diagnosed with the degenerative illness progressive supranuclear palsy.
“This larger than life character started to disappear and lose all his personality,” says Thomas, 49.
“I started to listen to opera as a way of contacting him and some of it I really liked.
“Now I regard him standing up on that building site singing along to his tapes as a memory that really epitomises his individuality and his determined nature and his belief in being self-educated.”
With no qualifications, Colin Thomas placed huge weight on the importance of education. He set about teaching himself and, as he already enjoyed choral music thanks to hearing it at church, he signed up to the Great Composers series in his local newsagents.
Periodically, he would receive a book and 10-inch record, which tackled classical music alphabetically, from Bach to Wagner.
When he came to a recording of opera, he changed tactics – using trial and error to discover what he liked best.
“He liked the Italians – the big stuff,” says Thomas.
A commissioner at the Royal Opera House, who knew Thomas’s wife through a shared interest in open air swimming, heard the comedian talking about his father on the BBC Radio 4 feature Inheritance Tracks and suggested they work together on a project.
This resulted in Thomas producing an opera, with two professional singers and a pianist, in his parents’ Bournemouth bungalow.
“If you had a list of people who would be my natural allies, the Royal Opera House is pretty near the bottom, just above the Henley Regatta, so I was really shocked by how genuinely supportive they were,” he says.
“If my younger self met my older self I reckon my younger self would really give me a hard time over the Royal Opera House.”
They moved all the chairs to one end of the living room and the performers entered from the kitchen through a set of sliding doors. Official playbills were printed for the concert.
“It was a really amazing experience, partly because of my mum’s ability to turn it into catering hell,” says Thomas.
“The buffet she cooked was a feat worthy of observation by Heston Blumenthall and Mike Leigh.
“Also my dad’s reaction to the music was really profound. He really emerged out of his shell of the illness. His eyes were wide open. It was quite a remarkable thing.”
After the concert, Thomas recorded conversations about the experience with both his parents and brother. These, as well as his own account, make up his Bravo Figaro live show.
In many ways this deeply personal performance is a far cry from his previous tours, which have covered everything from his experience of walking the wall in the West Bank to the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, but it is political in its own, quieter, way.
“If you’re a comedian, your relationship with your family will always emerge somewhere in your work,” says Thomas.
“It’s your first encounter with all the big emotions, it’s your first glimpse of the world. But I never thought I’d end up doing something like this.”
MARK THOMAS: Bravo Figaro is at the Liverpool Playhouse on January 30.